Ann Arbor’s music scene is one of tradition and variance. Specifically, the venues in Ann Arbor play a crucial role in the city’s musical history. Hill Auditorium, in conjunction with the University Musical Society, is known for hosting some of the most legendary orchestras of all time — the New York and Berlin Philharmonics, to name a few. The Blind Pig brings in a wide variety of punk, popular and local musicians to a historic venue that big names of the past have walked through. But one of the most intimate venues that Ann Arbor owes a significant part of its history to over the last 50 years is The Ark. The Ark plays an integral role in bringing folk music to Ann Arbor, hosting over 300 different acts of varying styles throughout the year, from folk to jazz to bluegrass and everything in between.
Founded in 1965, The Ark began as a nonprofit organization, and has remained the same since, aside from a brief stint in the ’70s. Times had become tough, and the venue had to rely on ticket sales to keep afloat. The Ark was able to get back on track, able to return to their mission with the initiation of an idea in 1977. That idea was The Ann Arbor Folk Festival.
“Those first couple of Folk Festivals sort of came out of desperate measures and these artists coming together saying, ‘we’ll do this show and support this venue that’s important to us as performers as well as the community’,” Barb Chaffer Authier, the marketing director at The Ark, said in an interview with The Daily. Since then, the festival has remained an important aspect of The Ark’s legacy.
A few things have changed since 1977, when the festival was held on only one night in the Power Center. It wasn’t until the mid-’80s when the festival switched over to Hill Auditorium, bringing in headliner Bonnie Raitt. Back then, headliners consisted of local artists, as opposed to the huge names that are brought into town today.
In 2003, the festival added a second night. “Hill Auditorium went under renovation in 2003, which is the year we moved back to the Michigan Theater,” Authier explained. “And because we now had a crowd of over 3000 that were attending the festival … that’s when we started doing two nights.” When the festival moved back to Hill Auditorium, The Ark decided to keep the festival two days long due to the success of the previous year.
Having more time for different acts, the festival decided to push the boundaries with some of the artists they brought in. “You hear Folk Festival and you might be thinking ‘Kumbaya’ or singer-songwriter or something like that, but it really gave us the opportunity to put a bigger variety of music on the lineup,” Authier explained.
The Ann Arbor Folk Festival has not only allowed The Ark to remain nonprofit by becoming one of its biggest fundraisers, but it has also made Ann Arbor one of the most well-known spots in the country for folk music. The Ann Arbor Folk Festival takes place this Friday and Saturday, Jan. 25 and 26, at Hill Auditorium. In addition to the festival, many of the artists on the lineup will be returning to The Ark this winter and spring. Tickets for those shows are on sale now.